Lately, it seems everyone wants to “AI-ify” everything. However, what’s the real potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in helping reduce transport sector emissions? Better yet, how are some companies deploying AI across the transport industry right now to help reduce emissions and improve efficiency?
AI is great for analyzing data quickly and improving efficiency cost-effectively. It's something any industry, including transport, can benefit from.
AI can help partially bridge the gap in the emissions reduction potential of hard assets and technologies such as electric vehicles and sustainable aviation fuel, as additional hardware and software solutions will be needed to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
Let’s explore just a few examples among a growing list of AI applications across transport.
Taking a seat on public transit
I asked Konstantin Spasov about his thoughts on the role of AI in reducing transport emissions. As vice president of business development at Modeshift, a U.S. company focused on offering software tools to improve the transit industry, he has a direct perspective on the use of AI in transit.
"While the immediate impact of AI may be indirect, applications that effectively reduce barriers to adoption will have the greatest impact," Spasov said in an email.
Spasov also shared how AI can play a role in transit today while also reducing the number of vehicles on the road: "For example, leveraging AI to implement demand-determined transit routes instead of fixed routes will ensure that utilization of public transit is both optimized in terms of fuel efficiency but also positioned to serve the greatest number of passengers..."
The one backseat driver we need
Looking at the world of driving, our very own Heather Clancy recently wrote a piece on how Google is using AI to help address climate change.
Clancy briefly touched on Google’s eco-friendly route planner that uses AI to offer drivers more efficient routes, which could save more than 1 million tons of carbon emissions per year. Additionally, she mentioned Project Green Light, something Google is quietly working on to leverage AI to improve traffic light stops.
In moving freight, companies such as Flock Freight use AI to combine freight across various cargo owners and efficiently move them on one truckload to help improve efficiency and reduce empty cargo space on trucks. The company’s website says its technology can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions 15-40 percent.
Flying through the aviation sector
Google is also leveraging AI across aviation. The tech giant recently piloted an AI tool to help address contrails, which form when an airplane flies through a layer of humidity at a certain altitude, creating a thin white line, similar to a cloud. The 2022 IPCC report notes that contrails account for roughly 35 percent of aviation’s global warming impact due to the heat they trap that would otherwise leave the atmosphere. Thus, Google’s AI tool has the potential for the meaningful gap-bridging I mentioned earlier.
Juliet Rothenberg, Google’s lead product manager for the climate AI team, shared a bit more about two areas the company is exploring next with this tool: (1) scaling it and (2) addressing the highest-impact emissions area for aviation — nighttime contrails.
In terms of scaling, the company is focused on mass distribution and is working with software platforms that already help airlines and pilots monitor turbulence data when flight planning and during flights, to incorporate Google's contrail tool directly. As for the highest-impact areas of application, Rothenberg shared that the company will focus more on nighttime contrails, which is more impactful because the Earth’s heat that otherwise would leave the atmosphere is 100 percent trapped at night — as opposed to daytime contrails when some heat escapes the atmosphere.
"One of the really exciting proof points from our work with American Airlines is that contrails could be one of the most cost-effective solutions for the aviation industry [in reducing emissions]," said Rothenberg. "And that [impact] gets even more cost-effective as we start looking at nighttime contrails … so as we continue to develop the science and conduct research, focusing on the areas that are the highest impact is going to be our goal."
Sailing across the high seas
Among the many ways AI can play a role in maritime shipping, leveraging its ability to optimize shipping routes and reduce fuel consumption seems a great way to see immediate emission reductions.
In 2022, Wallenius Wilhelmsen became the first global shipping company to adopt a fully AI-based approach to voyage optimization, helping reduce fuel consumption by up to 10 percent. Working with DeepSea, an AI software company for the maritime industry, the tool monitors parameters such as fuel consumption, speed and electricity consumption to produce detailed instructions for the captain to optimize the routes.
"No human being, no matter how many years of experience they have, can compete with these automated sailing instructions," said Geir Fagerheim, senior vice president of marine operations at Wallenius Wilhelmsen.
Like many areas across the industry, the real question will be — can we scale AI solutions in time to make a meaningful difference across climate?